Monday, July 16, 2007

Sitting at the Big Table

I don't know what your holidays with family were like when you were younger, but while I was growing up there was an unwritten rule, strictly enforced, that all the children were expected to sit together at their own table, segregated from the adults. The reason for this was really quite simple, as even the kindest "person of a certain age" would explain to those rebellious youths who thought of themselves as being "a big boy/girl now"...

They wanted to be able to eat in peace and relative quiet, apart from the inevitable [and ultimately childish] squabbles which would break out during those meals.

Whether these arguments were based upon real or perceived slights, territorial imperatives or other, now-long-forgotten reasons, the adults simply didn't want any part of it. They wanted to be able to relax and enjoy their feast, at least symbolically separated from all the whining and jealousies and other conflicts of their offspring. And, if truth be told, as I've aged and sat at various familial, work and other tables celebrating whatever holiday or occasion we're all supposed to be celebrating, I've understood the wisdom of that hard and fast rule more and more.

So, what does that particular trip down memory lane have to do with comics? Well, in a real sense, my recent move towards having my work published by more mainstream publishers like Rosen is, in its own way, an outgrowth of that tradition. Not to denigrate the market which has, for the past ten years, provided me with so much enjoyment, real and lasting friendships and good acquaintances--not to mention my current profession and various jobs--but it became clear to me a little over three years ago that it was time to establish myself in the "real world" bookstore, online bookseller and library/academic markets, and that it was time to work towards making that my primary source of work and income.

Quite simply, I realized that it was time to stop fighting with others over a "piece of the pie" of the woefully small comic book market, and time to move towards establishing my place within the larger, better supported mainstream market. Or, to lapse back into the opening analogy, it was time to sit at the big folks' table and have a meal first--availing myself of the meat-and-potatoes with all the trimmings, and then enjoy my slice of the comic market.

Again, I mean this in no way as an insult to comics aficionados, and certainly not those good people who have in the past and present day supported me and my work. Nor am I abandoning either the market or those same people for a quick buck. However, you can only live so long on a restricted diet, particularly one which is so often lacking in enough nutrition to sustain any long term growth...much less a life. In more than one sense, it became glaringly obvious to me that it was time to step up, to enter that larger, more complex and challenging world in the hope of not just making a go of it, but with the real possibility of creating some kind of sustainable niche for myself in that world.

So, what's the comic market's place in this new scheme of things? Well, only a willfully ignorant person would suggest that I've left it entirely. If you look at the body of my work, both past and present, it becomes quite clear that I continue to ply my trade in that sphere, and to do my best to serve both the audience and the medium itself through my professional efforts. It's just that, rather than restrict myself to trying to become the biggest fish in that particular pond, I've decided to become more of an amphibian, capable of moving and thriving in those and other environments.

In other words, it's evolve or die, my friends. And the same rules and forces that apply to individuals also can be seen operating within and upon entire societies and their various organs--including, of course, the comic market.

Again, this isn't a sign of fear, weakness or defeat. Rather, it's the outcome of what I hope will be a very smart and natural evolution/revolution that's taking place within my own life...and within the comics world itself.

Increasingly, in both art and life, it's time to evolve or die. The choice is to create a new world for ourselves and this wonderful medium or...well, perhaps not die, but instead refuse to learn, to change, to grow, to remain the same; to remain satisfied with what we had, have always had, and refuse any new possibilities. Which, in my opinion, is a state that's fate that's far worse than death. I'd rather be a dead fossil than a living one, I suppose.

So it's time to sit at the Big Table, and enjoy that moveable feast and the good conversation which arises from that experience. All of which will make that slice of pie taste all sweeter, I think.

Well, that's more than enough pontificatin' on my part, I'm sure. Just one more bit of bizness to deal with today...

If you haven't had the chance yet, don't forget to check out the four books featuring my interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mike Oeming and George PĂ©rez. You'll find them all on page 334 of the current [July 2007] issue of the Previews catalogue.

And that's it, for now. Which means it's time for...

What's Bill been reading lately? [covering the period 7-2-07 to 7-15-07]

Batman: Ego and Other Tails
Darwyn Cooke with Paul Grist, Bill Wray, Tim Sale and others
DC Comics

This surprisingly slim book collects much of Cooke's major work for DC which features the Dark Knight Detective and his extended "family" of characters, including the Batman: Ego one shot and the Catwoman: Selina's Big Score, along with various shorter tales, covers and a pinup from Batman: Gotham Nights and Solo series. Taken together with Cooke's The Absolute New Frontier, which I've reviewed with no small praise a while back, the reader will be presented with a very good idea of the truly fine and even outstanding arc of his comic career. That Cooke is one of a small number of artists gifted with the rare ability to instill a few lines with life on the page is obvious; less apparent is that he began as a creator possessed of a Protean talent for spinning an exceptional yarn which he's honed to an incredible degree--or perhaps I should say eminently credible, given how he's able to breath full-blooded life into characters with but a few lines of dialogue.

If you want to see how to make very, very good comics that are both entertaining and thoughtful, revealing yet playful, this is a perfect place to start. And for readers, this is The Good Stuff--even if, as Cooke notes in his introduction, his earlier work does have a few structural flaws. Highly recommended to all and sundry.

Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus volume 1
Jack Kirby, with Vince Colletta,
DC Comics

This big, thick volume reprints the opening installments in Jack Kirby's single greatest solo work, including issues # 133 through 139 of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen, and with the first three issues of The Forever People, New Gods, and Mister Miracle in one volume, on glare-free paper in hardcover, for the first time. And it's an honor that is long overdue.

These books have been savaged by critics and fans alike as "lesser Kirby," often simply because they apparently didn't sell enough to justify their continued publication. Careful reading of these tales, each one overflowing with more original and startling ideas per page than many other creators introduce over the course of their entire careers, puts the lie to that specious assertion. Quite simply, in more ways than I can name in this space, these comics, along with those scheduled to follow in the next three volumes of this series, represent Kirby's masterwork. Unfinished it may be, but it's impossible to deny the sheer strength and unadulterated genius captured upon these pages.

My only real complaint with this book is the choice to use incredibly tiny type for Grant Morrison's extremely fine introduction [which is almost worth the price of admission alone--it really is that good and lucid] and Mark Evanier's Afterword. And even with that caveat, I am compelled to give this the very highest recommendation to all readers.

This is the stuff of legends, folks, and it holds up better than 95% of the work which preceded it, was concurrently published in the same period, as well as that which has followed it. If you have any inclination to learn how to make comics of real weight and worth, to create stories which still have the ability to inspire awe while they entertain the reader, you must not only own this book--you should study it like it's a holy text. As for the rest of you, if you love the good in comics, you should own and read this unfinished epic. Jack Kirby's Fourth World saga really is that essential to a full understanding and enjoyment of the medium, and its history. Period.

The Plain Janes
Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

This isn't just the first book in the highly-anticipated Minx line from DC Comics by way of Vertigo editrix Shelley Bonds, but it's also the first graphic novel from the award-winning YA author Castellucci, and the "major league" debut of Jim "Street Angel" Rugg. And what a fine read it is. Yeah, this and the rest of the line seems to be mainly aimed at capturing the attention and money of what I've referred to as "the manga girls" crowd--that burgeoning group of young ladies who devour whole entire runs of shojo and other genres published in translation by Viz, TokyoPop and other importers of Japanese comic goodness--but it's also an entirely enjoyable and very engaging story even if you happen to be, like myself, male and far beyond your teens. Castellucci's created believable characters who interact in realistic manners within their well-wrought environs, and the character and plot arcs are compelling. Rugg's open, freely flowing line work and command of visual story telling not only serve the script's needs, he adds subtle touches and nuances in a perfectly balanced manner.

The Plain Janes is a real joy to read, and a tale which likely will reward rereading with further insight into both the characters and themes being explored. A real breath of fresh, invigorating air that's got its own, distinctive flavor. Even better, it's a book with heart, and a message of real hope that avoids unwarranted sentimentality, shallow thinking and easy answers in a world increasingly demanding that we all must get along by all being the same...and never, ever asking even the most obvious of questions. Highest recommendations for just about all but the youngest of readers, and something that most aspiring creators should study for lessons in how to tell good stories featuring real people, be they in costumes, or a high school clique.

Satsuma Gishiden: The Legend of the Satsuma Samurai volume 2
Hiroshi Hirata
Dark Horse

This second volume of Hirata's stirring and evocative retelling of historical events builds upon the strengths of the first as it expands its canvas to encompass shogunate politics, strategies and the dynamics of inter- and intra-clan relations, revealing much about the Japanese character and human nature. By turns complex socio-political drama and ribald, gossipy tragicomedy, Satsuma Gishiden provides some real entertainment value along with real wisdom about those aspects of shared humanity can contribute to our mutual greater good...and those which will not only undermine, but eventual doom even our greatest of efforts and dreams. All that, and some truly stunning art--a mix of realism tinged with just the right amount of cartoony exaggeration--sets this series apart, and marks it as one of the better samurai tales on the English market today. Highly recommended for those looking for something heroically different, and particularly for those wondering how they might restore some vibrancy, or even inject a sense of full blooded life to seemingly "dead" history in their own work.

Postcards: True Stories that Never Happened
edited by Jason Rodriguez; written by Harvey Pekar, Phillip Hester, Stuart Moore, A. David Lewis, Tom Beland, Robert Tinnell, and others, with art by Michael Gaydos, the Fraim Brothers, Danielle Corsetto, Rob G, et. al.
Villard Books

Inspired by a group of old postcards whose messages and artwork captured editor Rodriguez's eye, the various new short stories found in this collection are as wide ranging in approach, theme and nature as its varied contributors. And, like most anthologies, some tales succeed more than others; however, the tally in either column will vary from individual to individual, entirely dependent on their personal mindset and taste. Personally, I found almost every one of these tales to be at worst very good and interesting, with more than half providing some kind of real entertainment value and food for thought long after the covers were closed. There were a number of standout stories, including the incredibly moving first two tales ["Blue" written by Chris Stevens and illustrated by Gia-Bao Tran, and "Time" by Tom Beland] which sets everything up nicely.

Ironically, the one tale I found rather disappointing is the piece contributed by perhaps the highest-profile creators included in the book: Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner's "The History of a Marriage," told via their own correspondences over the years, seemed more than a little sketchy and even slight. However, this impression might be more due to the fact that the tale, and the snapshot-like presentations of the incidents depicted, requires some real in-depth knowledge of their lives to have any real impact or meaning on the reader, rather than any deficiency on the creators' part. Still, it's a decent tale, and any misgivings about one piece shouldn't prevent anyone from picking up this very fine collection.

And that's all for the moment folks. I'll be back here next week, if not earlier, with some more thoughts on comics, work and other topics of interest. In the meantime, why not grab a good book and go outside, sit in a tree or on a park bench, and enjoy this beautiful summer? I think I will, even if for only half an hour.



Blogger chris stevens said...

glad you enjoyed my story, bill. thanks for the shout-out!

7:36 PM  
Blogger SBL said...

Nice reading!! Thanks for sharing!!

clipping path

10:08 PM  

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